Supreme Court says victims of al-Qaeda bombings entitled to billions in punitive damages

Victims of the 1998 bombings by al-Qaeda of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania are entitled to billions of dollars in punitive damages from Sudan, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The bombings killed 224 people and injured thousands, and courts determined long ago that Sudan enabled them by letting Osama bin Laden operate from the country and providing passports to al-Qaeda members.

A judge in Washington awarded more than $10 billion in damages, of which $4.3 billion was for punitive damages.

The question before the court concerned a 2008 amendment to the federal Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which generally protects foreign governments from lawsuits but also details the exceptions to such protection. Acts of terrorism are one such exception.

But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2017 said Congress had not been specific when authorizing retrospective lawsuits that punitive damages were allowed.

In a unanimous decision written by Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, the Supreme Court disagreed. (Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh recused himself, presumably because he had been involved with the case while on the D.C. Circuit.)

While perhaps not explicit, “Congress was as clear as it could have been when it authorized plaintiffs to seek and win punitive damages for past conduct” by amending the law to allow suits for past acts of terrorism, Gorsuch wrote.

Damages for the attacks, in which 12 Americans died, were awarded by default, because Sudan did not defend itself in the initial proceedings. It retained lawyers to fight the punitive damages award, however.

“Because retroactive damages of the punitive variety raise special constitutional concerns, Sudan says, we should create and apply a new rule requiring Congress to provide a super-clear statement when it wishes to authorize their use,” Gorsuch wrote.

“We decline this invitation.”

The Department of Justice had endorsed the claim for punitive damages.

Most of the more than 500 people involved in the case foreign citizens who were either U.S. government employees or contractors injured in the bombings or survivors of those killed.

The case is Opati v. Sudan.


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